It was a difficult time but I wasn’t planning on instigating a prison break. That’s just the way things turn out sometimes.
Papua New Guinea is a beautiful country with more than 800 tribes and as many different dialects. Its people have faced such rapid development they have been thrust into the modern world while encumbered with primitive beliefs. An unstable political system awash with corruption does not help matters, and violence and lawlessness have become such a problem that on the day I arrived the Prime Minister declared ‘war’ on crime.
Despite meeting some very kind and desperately poor people who treated me beautifully (the Nine Mile settlement had never known a white bloke to hang out alone) the country’s problems are obvious, and we were there to film them. With only eleven days for the shoot and thousands of kilometers to travel we couldn’t waste time. And my idea of starting with two days in a police squad was fast looking like a waste of time.
At the end of the second night we had a couple of domestic incidents and little else (violence against females is endemic in the cities and near universal in the highlands). Back at the Boroko police station where the jail cells are we had a crew meeting. Have we got anything to use? Not really. One scuffle might make the final cut if things all go to hell. We need a release form from the arrested bloke so we can legally show his face on television. How will we get that?
I’ll sort it, I said. I’ll get the release form signed.
The next thing I know a cop is leading me to the cells and opening the door. It was dimly lit and as my eyes adjusted I immediately wondered what the hell I was doing. The main cell was an open area with smaller cells coming off it. The men wandered around freely, but it was crowded. And it smelled. Being surrounded by violent men is one thing, but the unknown is something else. In the darkness, my white skin contrasted greatly with theirs and I glowed like an underpowered incandescent light. I hid the concern from my face, but the heat meant sweat was dripping off it.
I was put in a small cell with the guy I wanted and the cop left us. Where the hell was he going, I thought. I couldn’t believe it, but I went about my business explaining to the prisoner, who spoke only Pidgin English, that I wanted to put him on the television in England. The absurdity of the situation suddenly struck me, but to my surprise he happily nodded his head thinking that when he signed the form he would be freed. No, no, no I said. I can’t do that. And then he got angry. A silent menacing angry
He began clenching a fist and pointing at me. In a conversation hitherto inhibited by problems of verbal language it was a delightfully clear and universally recognisable statement that he wished to pound my head and body repeatedly with his knuckles. Bother, I thought. It flashed through my mind that being ripped apart in a prison cell in Port Moresby might be the way my journey ends. Bother I thought again.
With a confidence that belied genuine fear, I nonchalantly shook my head and extended my hand to shake his. If he were going to hit me it would be now. He didn’t. I breathed out and whipped out of the cell to see the cop still in the crowded main area. I signaled I was keen to go, still desperately faking a relaxed approach as the gaze of every prisoner threatened me.
As the cop unlocked the door to the outside courtyard the prisoner who had forever ruined his chances of being on telly silently crept between the heavy exit grill and me. The cop didn’t see the stealth and he continued to open the door. Bang! The guy shot through it. Fuck me, I thought.
The cop lunged forward and caught my fleeing friend by the shorts (which was all he was wearing) and they lurched down entangling his legs. His exposed body allowed three appendages for me to grab. I chose one of his arms and the three of us tussled on the ground. Looking up I saw the entire jail pouring through the open door. At which point I did the only thing a sensible man would do. I ran. With a small head start it now appeared as though I were leading the prison break. This, I thought to myself, was a quite peculiar turn of events.
As I scrambled to the front desk I suggested to the cops that some assistance was required and to the cameraman that I may have inadvertently made some terrific television and pointed in the direction of the melee.
We went back to see the single cop heralding the prisoners back into the jail. Apparently those who had flooded from the cells after the initial break had been from the cop’s tribe and they had happily rounded up anybody they thought was taking the piss. They also beat the living daylights out of the fellow who initially darted out.
My heart still beating, I lit a cigarette, leaned against a wall, and pondered the events of the last 20 minutes. It was indeed a very strange country. It was day two of filming. How the hell could this all be squeezed into an hour film, I thought? And is there a better way of getting release forms?